The 75 Greatest Living Female Authors

I'm adding Margaret Drabble to the list.

I’m adding Margaret Drabble to the list.

At Abebooks’ Reading Copy blog, the 75 greatest living female authors have been selected by a poll.  The top 10, according to Abebooks customers, are  J. K. Rowling, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Harper Lee, Joan Didion, Zadie Smith, Hilary Mantel, and Barbara Kingsolver.

After the first-place Rowling bolt from the blue, the next nine are pretty staid choices, all critically-acclaimed, prize-winning writers of best-selling literary novels and nonfiction.

Go further down the list and you’ll find popular writers Diana Gabaldon, Stephenie Meyer, Anne Rice, and Suzanne Collins sprinkled among divas like Marilynne Robinson and Louise Erdrich.

The list reflects our culture:  pop mixed with literary.

Is that a good thing?

Shouldn’t I be shocked that Rowling is in first place?  I very much liked A Casual Vacancy, but it isn’t great literature.  As for the Harry Potter books, they are not for my age group.

Why aren’t I surprised?

It’s because last fall I read about the “Dave TV” book poll in the UK on best books of the 21st century, and the top book was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Online life inures us to ridiculousness.

Who decides what is best?

You don’t have to be a literary critic, but you do want your listmaker to be able to distinguish between Harry Potter and Wolf Hall.

For instance, even though Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle is one of my favorite coming-of-age novels,  I’ve always known that George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, is more brilliant and innovative.  Today the edges between such books are blurred as academics search for fresh scholarly topics among pop fiction.  At first it’s fun:  you think, finally they’re acknowledging how good Dodie Smith is.  And then you realize that it’s something else altogether.

At least Abebooks customers can differentiate between books and TV.  One of my scholarly friends attended a conference on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.   Fascinating, but what on earth could it mean?

I’ve gone through periods of denial about my womanhood.

I’ve had eerie epiphanies lately where I see myself as a Very Competent Person rather than as a Woman.

I wish I agreed with A. S. Byatt that women don’t need their own literary prize.

It does seem necessary to me:  otherwise, the pop women writers rush off with all the laurels.

Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest was my role model, but if I hadn’t loved Clara Middleton, the heroine of  George Meredith’s The Egoist, would I have studied classics? (Well, yes, I’m being silly here.)

Anyway, good books by men, good books by women, I read them all.

I am very happy that the Orange Prize/Bailey Women’s Prize honors women, because we need something besides these polls to keep women’s literature in front of our eyes.

And I’m adding Margaret Drabble’s name to the Abebooks list.  I’m sure  you’ll all agree that she belongs there.

13 thoughts on “The 75 Greatest Living Female Authors

  1. Lists are always going to be subjective, but I’m incensed that Rowling is top. By what standards do they judge her as great? Just because she’s sold lots of books? Atwood is head and shoulders to the nth degree above her and I think would have been my instant choice had someone asked me the question.

    Actually, I find the list a bit depressing – I’m off to read an *old* book by somebody dead….. 😉


    • I agree entirely. Rowling is ok, but over – hyped and nowhere near as accomplished as Atwood or Joyce Carol Oates. I am reading Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth” for my readers’ group. It’s an enjoyable read, but here essays are better than her novels.



      • Clare, it is very odd that Rowling comes first. Some of these other writers could easily be listed for the Nobel.

        I did enjoy Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and I read her latest, NW, and admired it. But I must admit she would not make my “greatest” list. She is, however, still young, and perhaps one of the youngest on the list?


  2. Karen, I feel the same way! I desperately want to know who the best living writers are when I see a list like this, but it is compiled by a poll, so Rowling comes off with the most votes. I wonder if they “edited” the poll so so many ltierary writers come in next. If Rowling is first choice, one wonders if second choice wasn’t really Nora Roberts.:)

    Yes, Atwood and the eight after her are truly excellent.
    There must be many more obscure writers out there that I don’t know. Since I don’t read much contemporary fiction, it’s disappointing that I know all these writers, if you know what I mean.

    The lists I loved were at the turn of the century when Modern Library and others came up with top 100. Of course those weren’t living writers.

    I have a best women writers list of my own, but most of them are dead.

    Yes, back to my dead writers!


  3. Yes Kat Zadie Smith still has time to develop, but your points are correct. As for Drabble, I have collected her for years. She is wonderful. I am a great admirer of A.S.Byatt too. I think the irritating thing about these lists is the lack of discrimination. Pop authors of limited powers are put above truly superb authors, but I suppose this is how these polls work, to win you have to be popular, not a fine writer.



  4. Clare, I used to love lists, but this kind of “reader poll” is very silly. “Greatest living” is the wrong name for it. I also thought that Abebooks was more exclusive. Foolishly, I thought a book site would attract a better list. I’ll bet if we had an “election” we could make up a better list here: you and Karen and I and whatever few others we could persuade to post. For one thing, I thought Marilynne Robinson and Louise Erdrich should have been much, much higher up the list.


  5. Thanks for introducing me to Abe books Reading Copy – what a great resource that its. My current favourite female author is Jane Gardam who’s Man in the Wooden Hat was excellent.


  6. Just curious, Kat. Have you read Drabble’s newest? I’ve always loved her but most people don’t like it so I haven’t tried it yet.


  7. It’s very good. In a way it’s hard for me to relate to because I am not a mother and the main character is the mother of a child with what might have once been called “mental retardation.” Drabble does explore other subjects, though, and she is always brilliant, even when I’m not quite with her. It might even be the best book she’s written in 10 years or so, just not my favorite.


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